Meet Harsha Chandir – REDI Research Fellow

It was a stint as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher that turned Dr Harsha Chandir on to education as a career. Since then, she has taught at high school and university before turning her attention to research. Her choice has been validated with awards such as and the prestigious 2021 Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education by the Australian Association for Research in Education for her outstanding thesis ‘Global Competence: Situated Enactments’. Here she describes how she became a teacher and the conversation with a student that led to a PhD at Deakin.

Can you tell us about your background? Where did you grow up?

My grandparents migrated to Indonesia during the partition of India and Pakistan. They were part of the huge diaspora that left India in the late 1940s. I was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia.

After high school I completed a Bachelor of Business Administration with the intention of helping to run my parent’s business, but I quickly realised it wasn’t for me. I applied for a few jobs but there wasn’t anything that enthused me, so I decided to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) part-time. I fell in love with being in the classroom and decided to pursue a career in teaching. I taught high school Business for a few years and then I lectured at BINUS University in Indonesia.

When did you become interested educational research?

I was teaching high school, and one of my students came to me after failing a maths test and said, “I just failed a maths test does this mean I am going to fail life?” He was in year nine and although his question may have been flippant, I sensed genuine worry behind it. I started to think about what the purpose of education is today, and in what ways schools and systems are preparing students for successful futures.

Our school had just adopted the Cambridge International Graduate Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) for 14- to 16-year-olds. This new curriculum had a strong emphasis on developing ‘21st century skills’ which required students to start thinking for themselves rather than just rote learning. My initial PhD project proposal was very brief. I wanted to find out if the Cambridge curriculum was the right one for our kids. What did it offer that our previous curriculum didn’t offer, and would it prepare them for the future?

How did you come to do your PhD at Deakin?

I was teaching full time in Indonesia, and my daughter decided to come to Australia for high school. I had always wanted to do a PhD and thought that this was an opportunity to go for it. I applied to a few universities in Melbourne, and I received a positive response from Professor Jill Blackmore. I was fortunate enough be accepted and offered a scholarship at Deakin.

My PhD topic changed significantly from the initial proposal. I started reading widely so that I could refine my project and I came across the Program for International Student Assessment’s (PISA) global competence assessment. Associate Professor Radhika Gorur, who is an expert in this field, agreed to co-supervise my PhD.

There were a lot of positive reports about the PISA but also a lot of criticisms. We tried to look at the assessment within a research question and a thesis.

What is PISA?

PISA is an international assessment coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy every three years and is often used to assess the quality of education systems across the world.

In 2018, the assessment of ‘global competence’ was added to PISA. The assessment tried to identify to what extent schools and education systems were preparing students to learn about global and intercultural issues, understand different cultural perspectives and take action for sustainable development.

Your PhD is titled ‘Global Competence: Situated Enactments’. What does this mean?

My research questioned what it means to be a global citizen and have global competence and how (if at all) these concepts can be assessed? I was curious to understand how these complex ideas had been translated into one standardised assessment. I interviewed the people at PISA who were part of the assessment development team and found that they consulted with various experts to design and develop a set of measures to assess global competence on a global scale.

However, when we looked at the assessment and how the students responded to it, we could see that everyone had different understandings and different practices of global competence. As part of my research, I spoke to the teachers, principals, and students at three schools in Victoria to determine the answers the PISA questions elicited from Australia students. The schools I visited were from the three sectors of schooling in Australia – Catholic, independent, and public. They were not representative of all schools within each sector but did give a general idea of the type of activities that schools do to develop global competence. Some schools work with refugees, others go to Aboriginal sites and record Aboriginal languages. These are all part of being globally competent but not included in the assessment developed by the OECD.

My research is saying that given the diversity of the world we live in, a standardised assessment such as PISA, is not able to capture the complexity of practices and highly nuanced concept of global competence. We need to understand the situated knowledges and enactments of global competence in different locations, different countries, and even different schools within countries.

Why do we need the research that you are doing? What does this mean for the community?

Governments in many countries, even Australia, make policy decisions based on PISA outcomes. For example, because Finland has done very well in PISA, it has been identified as having one of the best education systems, and as a result, many other countries have decided to adopt and adapt the Finnish system. However, it’s not that simple, particularly in the case of cultural competence. You can’t just adopt what another country is doing because you have different resources, different teacher education, different types of schooling and different students with their own personality and their own experiences. Even though the assessment is standardised, the students are not standardised. It’s important to considered PISA results in context and not jump to change things that might not necessarily need to be changed.

What has been the biggest influence on your career?

My parents have always encouraged me to pursue my interests and that’s allowed me to follow this path that I am on.

Since I arrived in Australia my SUPERvisors, Jill and Radhika have been enthusiastic champions of my work. There is an amazing culture at Deakin and every academic I have worked with has been supportive and generous with their time and in sharing their knowledge.

It’s been an incredible journey and I look forward to having many more academic adventures.

News 16 August 2022
Keywords: assessmentinterculturalPISA